Are Song Lyrics Poetry? Part One

Today, somewhere, someone probably asked this question for the first time, and yet I’ve been aware of this question for my entire adult life. So, before I try to address the question, let me ask first, how long have we been asking this?

The ancients didn’t ask it. It seems clear that if one goes far enough back in most cultures it was taken for granted that poetry would be sung or accompanied by music. It seemed to make little difference if it was an epic story or a condensed lyric expression, music was assumed as appropriate bordering on required.

Was there a progression away from music being expected with poetry in those times? I wish I could say I was scholar enough to answer that question here. As literacy became widespread, as the collecting of libraries increased, I assume more people may have read Homer or Sappho* on the page than heard their works performed. And similarly, when Confucius and his school collected The Book of Songs  they may not have assumed that each student would learn to sing and accompany each of them. Still it would have been absurd then for someone to judge that these works could not be poetry because musical accompaniment and performance had been associated with them.

Plectra and Sappho

Let’s see, one of these ought to work….And Sappho holding her plectrum in right hand


If we stay with English language and move on, we know that the Elizabethans recognized some poetry as destined for the printing press’s page, some for performance on the stage, and some for musical settings as songs. Poetry could be associated with music, but it wasn’t the default.

Continuing to sweep forward quickly, a few Romantics like Robert Burns wrote songs and Blake was reported to sing some of his work as well. Some of the prime British Isles romantics wrote literary ballads or the like, works that referred to song forms but without associated music, meant to be seen on the page.

Likewise, there seem to be only a scattered few in the late-Romantic/Victorian era and onto the early English language Modernists who were musical composers and poets or who assumed musical performance for their chief works. Long-time readers here will know that I like to point to Yeats as an exceptional example to this. For a time he pushed for poetry as performance with music and may even have composed or aided in the composition of some of the accompanying tunes. Little of his crusade survives, though it’s possible that one of the tunes to which his poem “The Song of the Wandering Aengus”  aka “The Golden Apples of the Sun”  is sometimes sung might be his, or personally approved by him.

That Yeats was closely associated with drama and theater may have something to do with this. Newly composed poetic drama is an uncommon form in the modern era, but drama normally presumes performance. Although readings by poets are common in the 20th and 21st century, the nature of the performances vary considerably, and it became common for poets to give dry readings that by the writer/reader’s nature or intent drained dramatic and performance elements from the reading.

Let’s stop for a moment and consider two unlike American poets who emerged in the early 20th century: Vachel Lindsay and T. S. Eliot. Lindsay, who came and went well before the first Beat poet stepped in front of a jazz combo can easily be seen as the original slam performance poet.

He wrote his poetry expecting to perform it. Associated with that expectation, his writing is designed to impact the back row of the auditorium immediately, and if he ever wrote a poem with layers of meaning or intentional ambiguity, I’ve never come upon it.

Eliot on the other hand, read somberly in public, but as much (or more) as Lindsay he seemed to inform his poetry with music. As I return to my serialized performance of his masterwork “The Waste Land”  this month I’m reminded of music’s considerable presence in it. He samples music in his great poem just as a modern hip hop composer might, dropping in scurrilous barracks ballads, pop songs, Wagner opera, and birdsong. He didn’t perform it as floridly as he wrote it, and so even if “The Waste Land”  bore an original working title of “He Do the Police in Different Voices”  Eliot does not do the voices when reading it, nor does he sing the music he’s decidedly referencing. It can  be performed however, and while the poem’s detailed layers and references won’t come through in one sitting, a performance like Fiona Shaw’s illuminates the emotional and character range in it better than anyone’s silent first (or probably tenth) reading of it will.

My performance of “The Waste Land,”  now about half complete, attempts to bring the abstracted music back to life in the poem, even if I reserve the right to select genres and modes of expression that Eliot might not expect.

When I perform a poem like Vachel Lindsay’s “Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight”  I expect you’ll get as much, or perhaps even more, from hearing it once as you would reading it on a page.

One of the knocks on poetry with music, or performing poetry in general, has been that it doesn’t help subtle and complex thoughts in poetry come through the way that slow reading on a page where one can look up and down the page at will does. I’ll agree there’s a non-linearity in reading poetry on the page that is difficult to translate into performance. But does musical performance of words prevent “re-reading”?

Music rejoices in repetition. Words used with music often take on refrains and repeated sections. I will sometimes create such refrains even if the original page poem doesn’t include them. Gospel and other ecstatic performance styles have been known to drill down to word or syllable level in repetition, again, somewhat compensating for that weakness of performed poetry vs. its non-linear presence on the page.

Particularly with recordings (although repeated performances have the same virtue) you can re-experience the poetic text for comprehension of different levels or different vectors of observation.

When I’m attending a poetry reading, I’m often worried that I will not be able to keep up the level of attention on the poet’s words as they read them throughout an entire night. This is irrespective of the value or quality of the poetry. A good poet is quite likely to cause my mind to explode with exploration engendered by a line, and I’ll find on my return that I have missed the rest of the poem! And a really good poem can blank out the next several poems.

On the other hand, a simple text like Otis Redding’s song “Respect”  as performed by Aretha Franklin and band can bear (for me) hundreds of listens. I will notice new things each time, or given the decades over which I’ve heard it, I may re-notice things I’ve forgotten I’ve noticed before. These revisits will also reach favorite moments where I wait for pleasures to return. A knottier text like Bob Dylan’s “Just Like A Woman”  once seemed like a way to vicariously experience a certain kind of demimonde I was only peripherally experienced in. Listening to it over my life tested it against theories that it was about gender fluidity, or that it was a patriarchal endorsement of the male gaze and privilege, and now I usually hear it more as an expression of two addicts negotiating their other relationship besides the one to the chemicals and the situation that obtains them. It may be none of those things, or it may not always be one of those things. It may be something different the next time I listen to it.

Why shouldn’t Emily Dickinson’s “Hope is a thing with feathers”  or Wallace Stevens’ “To the Roaring Wind”  get the same chance? Of course we can re-read a page poem, or read it and double back to check some connection, but particularly with short poems, might not music encourage repeat play?

In this first part we’ve talked more about poetry and the perception that it has become increasingly separate from music. In the second part we’ll come from the other direction, and talk about song lyrics and that old, but not ageless, question about if they are poetry. I’ll leave you with my performance of Yeats’ “Wandering Aengus.” We don’t know exactly how Yeats would have wanted it performed, but his writing on poetry with music indicates he didn’t want the performer to sing it in an art-song manner. Perhaps I’m complying with his wishes, but then I can’t really pull off full-voiced art song.




*My favorite Sappho legend—as a guitar player that must have the right flat pick to approach the instrument—is that she invented the plectrum.

Sweet Thames

Was I being audacious when I compared Eliot’s “The Waste Land”  to a modern hip hop/rap production sampling various parts and levels of the world’s culture? I don’t think so (though maybe I should be worried). I’m not going to get into a rap battle between T. S. Eliot vs. Missy Elliot, or a discussion about “Kendrick Lamar, is he a ‘real poet?” like my generation used to discuss Bob Dylan. My aging generational knowledge isn’t deep enough to discuss Lamar or Elliot as intelligently as I should. I’m more comfortable discussing folks who were born long before I was, but someone like Charley Patton is too O. G. to bring up here often. After all, T. S. Eliot and Charley Patton are my grandfather’s generation, born in the 19th century. People like me can be pretty good in figuring out what lessons our grandparent’s completed lives impart, not so good at what lessons our children should learn from us, and terrible at what lessons our children could teach us.

Charley Patton and T. S. Eliot

Charlie Patton and T. S. Eliot: two young swells put their best foot forward beside different rivers in the 1920s.


Eliot may have thought he was copying cubist paintings or cinema montage or some French poetry, but he chose this sampling tactic or he would have done something else. Who was Charlie Patton copying? I don’t know exactly. Maybe he made it up. Maybe some griot or indigenous shaman whispered it in his ear.

T. S. Eliot was his own kind of odd guy, odd to his contemporaries, even if he eventually became enormously influential in the Modernist literary movement that had taken over poetry education by the time I was a student. When I first introduced “The Waste Land”  here I said there’s two things you need to know to approach it, and they aren’t esoteric at all: first that it’s musical and intended to be, and second that it’s written by a person suffering from depression, a common human malady that colors and filters perception profoundly. Now, following my grappling with it in the past few years, I’ll add two more things, neither of which require reading about Grail legends or From Ritual to Romance  either: it’s written by a man writing for a culture coming out of a tremendous wartime trauma and it’s written by a man struggling to come to terms with human sexuality, it’s sins, pleasures, and disappointments.

On the war issues, Eliot is guiltily living, not dead, in a world where many others weren’t so lucky. Estimates vary, but somewhere between 15 and 19 million people were killed in WWI, the majority from the European theater that had become Eliot’s home. Given this level of death, it’s not surprising that Eliot personally knew people killed in the war. Most of his British literary contemporaries served in the war, he didn’t. Indeed, while WWI raged, he tried to disengage from the war, to continue to focus only on scholarly issues and his literary writing.*

Eliot’s an American from St. Louis in a foreign country and he’s gotta figure out how to trans-Atlantic code-switch. He goes in full-force, becoming so completely English that he eventually was able to style himself as an authority on what was appropriately British. After the conclusion of the war, as a literary critic he can write about “objective corelative” and all that, but he can no longer ignore the trauma his adopted country and the rest of Europe has suffered.

Last year’s segment “A Game of Chess”  rolled-up into one audio file in our last post, portrays marriage darkly and introduces rape and sexual coercion as one of the underlying themes in “The Waste Land.”  Here we know little about Eliot’s own experience, other than his marriage to an English woman was dysfunctional. As we move further into our section for this year, “The Fire Sermon,”  sexuality is further brought forward in an unflattering light.

As the section begins in the segment I call “Sweet Thames”  we’re back in a ruined landscape, the titular “Waste Land.”  The scene seems post a debauched party season, missing even the messy vitality of that. Eliot, a man who grew up near the banks of the southern Mississippi is now on the banks of London’s Thames river.

And then he, or some incarnation of the poem’s speaker, the many voices in Eliot’s head, is fishing. Following the literary and critical references, this is the Fisher King, and we could look to a trail of ancient myths, but I chose to keep it immediate and funky in performance. This is a dirty, river-rat frequented urban river. He wants us to know that he’s fishing next to a gashouse, which I take to be one of those now obsolete processing furnaces that turned coal into coal gas, a smelly and polluting process usually relegated to the worst part of town. The anachronistic pendant in me found this amusing, as a decade after ex-St. Louis boy Eliot wrote “The Waste Land”  his home-town Cardinals baseball team used to intimidate their opponents by wearing stinky unwashed uniforms and were given the nickname “The Gashouse Gang”  for their smell and general lack of decorum. There’s no known connection for this coincidence, but it’s good that they didn’t wait until later in “The Fire Sermon”  and to then become the World Series winners dubbed “The Young Men Carbuncular.”

As the section nears an end point another song-sample break is dropped,** the Mrs. Porter section. Eliot noted that it was an Australian army folk song, and further research indicates that the Mrs. Porter may have been a Cairo brothel keeper known to the ANZAC troops heading for the disastrous Gallipoli campaign, where a dear friend of Eliot, Jean Verdenal was killed in battle. Depending on how salty the soldier-singer may have felt, the body parts being reported as washed varied.

I like to think that Charley Patton, further down the Mississippi river, might have known that tune, but since neither he nor T. S. Eliot are here to sing this, you can hear my performance using the gadget below. If you’d like to look at the text of “The Waste Land”  while you listen, the full text is here.



*Like Ezra Pound his overseas American citizenship status complicated things, and like Pound there are some stories that he made an effort to serve. Eliot did teach night-school literature classes to working-class English women during the war however, and it’s easy to speculate that he may have picked up things later incorporated into “The Waste Land”  from that experience.

**And for all you carpe diem fans, did you note the sample from Marvell’s To His Coy Mistress”  here, when just before Mrs. Porter soda-washing-song he says “But at my back from time to time I hear…” and instead of a winged chariot, it’s motorcar horns. If given the choice of grave or sex, I think Eliot would have held out for a third choice.